Phantasy Star ReviewJoe Shaffer
I realize that console RPGs have come a tremendously long way since the '80s. Despite that, I am occasionally beckoned by nostalgia to return to older role-playing titles that refuse to hold your hand, spin a minimalistic yarn, and have a tendency to jack the jaw of any ill-prepared adventurers. While I've noticed most who hear this call tend to pine for Final Fantasy and Dragon Warrior, I decided to plug in an 8-bit quest I hadn't touched in ages: the once-magnificent Phantasy Star on Sega Master System.
"Once-magnificent?" you might ask. Yes, sadly... For as you likely know, games age. I'm not only talking about visually and aurally, either. Genres evolve and developers abandon elements and tropes as they become played out, or they seek to meet new standards set by groundbreaking titles. The absence of certain modern principles in older games is usually noticeable, and perhaps unfortunately so.
If I were to say that Phantasy Star aged incredibly well, I'd be lying through my teeth. While I love that the game doesn't bear a conspicuous rail to guide you through its campaign, I don't appreciate that it eventually descends into a scavenger hunt, so to speak. Rather than seeking out dungeons in a set order, usually as a means to advance a "storyline," Phantasy Star allows you to explore and conquer dungeons pretty much at your leisure. Unfortunately, the goal for each stage is pretty much the same: find location X, wander around until you find a treasure chest/boss/NPC, profit. Exit stage left, repeat the process. Without a rail and a running storyline, the only thing to attach a dungeon to the campaign is the object at the end of it, which is usually one of several event items needed to advance the campaign.
To make matters worse, you can only access certain items after speaking to certain characters. For instance, you cannot recover a much needed hovercraft until you've spoken to someone who mentions that it was left in a particular city. The same goes for some items hidden in dungeons. There's a dungeon, for example, that you can access in the first town. Exploring it reveals nothing of import. After speaking with an NPC about four towns later, you'll discover that there's a dungeon key hidden in a warehouse around the first town. That's when you might think, "Well, surely it can't be the dungeon actually in the town. I explored that." As it turns out, speaking to this man causes a treasure chest holding the dungeon key to magically appear where there wasn't one initially.
Thankfully, this issue seldom arises. A fair number of the game's conversation-reliant items are found outside of dungeons anyway, so you won't find many instances of delving deep into a labyrinth only to find a dead end that later holds a useful piece of equipment. That should come as a relief, as Phantasy Star's dungeons are immense and quite convoluted. While some players are turned off by "rat mazes," I dug the game's dungeons because they are complex and challenging, usually filled with tough monsters who love to sap your resources.
What's unfortunate about the dungeons, though, is that their complexity is practically wasted. Most RPGs reward exploration by stuffing remote corners and hidden passageways with goodies and secrets. Rather than abiding this principle, Phantasy Star crams its corridors with an abundance of dead ends and lackluster rewards. Finding money, for instance, usually nets you an insignificant sum. Even in later dungeons, you'll find numerous boxes that contain less than one-hundred mesetas (Phantasy Star's currency), when a single random encounter at the time could net you many times more cash. Discovering items is similarly depressing, as the developers seems to be fond of loading their dungeons with outdated equipment and unnecessary consumables.
Exploring dungeons in Phantasy Star is not as exhausting as it is in other RPGs from the same era. Part of that has to do with Phantasy Star's save system, which allows you to save anywhere. While that can dull the game's challenge factor, it's also great for people like myself, who don't always have hours to donate to trudging through a long dungeon, then making a lengthy pilgrimage back to an inn or a certain NPC just to save. It also helps that the game has a fairly streamlined battle system, which allows you to cut through combat sequences with ease. Of course, you still need to pay attention to your characters' HP, lest one should perish, forcing you to pad to the nearest church in order to revive him. Still, it's nice to have random encounters that are not bogged down by loads of sluggish, unnecessary text or irritating quirks and/or animations that slow battles to a crawl.
Unfortunately, the spoils of war are a bit disproportionate. The game can be stingy with experience and money when dealing with some tough enemies, yet generous when battling others. For instance, there are some powerful mages that assail you later in the campaign that give next to nothing for your troubles, but can devastate your characters when given the opportunity. On the flip side, there are gun-toting foes you can encounter on an ice planet who can be easily dispatched, yet are quite bountiful in regards to monetary rewards. Because of this, I wound up running from a large number of late-game encounters. They just weren't worth fighting.
If there's any other Jekyll/Hyde nonsense I need to discuss, it's the audio-visual end. Aurally, Phantasy Star is terribly dated. This is mostly due to Master System's limited sound card, which resulted in grating sound effects--many of which can be found on a multitude of Atari 2600 games--found throughout the experience. Rather than sound effects that accentuate the desperate struggle of battle, what issues from most opponents is either a shrill BWEEEP or a dull DUUUUNNN. That might have been par for the course at the time this title was released, but it's jarring when paired with the game's outstanding visuals. For an 8-bit game, Phantasy Star looks great; better, actually, than either Dragon Warrior or Final Fantasy. The game's bestiary displays some hellishly detained monster, consisting of vicious dragons, snarling vampires, and a variety of creatures that appear to be references to other science fiction works (man-eating plants that resemble triffids, sea life that looks like it wandered off the set of a Roger Corman film, etc). There's even an immense octopus striking a pretentious, judgmental pose.
Phantasy Star is almost mediocre by today's standards. I say "almost," because the game finds true redemption in one of the genre's sadly lost concepts: it eschews a "deep," silly narrative and leaves you to your devices. Ultimately, you are the one who decides where to go and what to do next. Neither are you beaten over the head by the suggestions of NPCs (who mostly leave vague hints regarding certain locations and items), nor are you forced into motion by dialog-heavy cutscenes. Phantasy Star is a great rustic experience for people who aren't big on modern RPGs. Those of us who enjoy dipping into both retro and contemporary pools, though, might find that the campaign isn't what it used to be.
Disclosure: We are provided copies of games from the game companies for some games that we review.